Report by Peter Makari
Fulfilling one of the recommendations of the conference entitled, ”Christians and Muslims ... Together for Jerusalem“ (June 14-17, 1996), the Middle East Council of Churches and the Arab Working Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue jointly organized a three-day conference on our common Abrahamic roots. Time was allotted to discuss the pressing contemporary issues of Christian Zionism and the ‘Freedom from Religious Persecution' legislation now before the U.S. Congress. The seminar was held at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut from Thursday, July 9 to Sunday, July 12, 1998.
This meeting was an illustration of how civil society in the Arab world is a viable option. Bringing together Muslim and Christian clergy; European, American, and middle eastern writers, intellectuals, and professionals; and a variety of interested persons from throughout the region, the three-day conference demonstrated that lively (sometimes even heated) discussion can take place among people who do not necessarily agree. Indeed a positive spirit prevailed.
The focus of the first two days (Thursday and Friday) was on Abraham and his spiritual and genealogical relationship to the followers of the three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, MECC General Secretary, opened the conference. In his remarks he confessed that “the topic of this day's meeting is delicate. It calls for well-targeted and carefully worded speech.” Noting thorny contemporary political realtities and their relationship to the question of a common Abrahamic heritage, he expressed hope that this dialogue event would be fruitful and that participants would “emerge from it with better insight into the subject, closer to each other in outlook and thought.” The purpose of this meeting, and “[t]he overriding concern of this thesis is to search for the common source of the three religions so as to build a bridge connecting them.”
The next two speakers, Dr. Muhammad as-Sammak and Dr. Muhammad Salim al-Awa, represented the Arab Working Group. Dr. Sammak spoke of the need for a common spirit of dialogue, an increased awareness in the Arab mind of the implications of the American “Freedon from Religious Persecution Bill,” and an affirmation in Arab countries of the desire for all their citizens to live together in peace and mutual respect. Dr. al-Awa also discussed the issue of coexistence and recommended that special activities be implemented for youth to foster this spirit.
The first formal lecture was offered by Shaikh Muhammad Mahdi Shams ad-Din, Imam of the High Shi'ite Islamic Council in Lebanon. He spoke about the common roots of faith and the unity of the Abrahamic faiths. While stating that the conference was not intended to be a political forum, but a place in which knowledge is increased, he also discussed the importance of rejecting contemporary political Zionism. Politics should be separated from faith, and faith should not be manipulated for political ends. This separation in no way implies that political and social life should be devoid of faith, but rather that the oppression of people cannot be justified by faith. He went on to say that the secular movement in the Arab, Islamic, and Christian worlds has had an impact everywhere. Zionism, a secular form of Judaism, has infected faith from within.
The group was fortunate to have a second encounter with Imam Shams ad-Din at the end of the second day when he hosted them for discussion and dinner at the High Shi'ite Islamic Council. In his prepared remarks on that occasion, the Imam spoke about globalization and the secularization of society. Secular societies have been able to acheive remarkable progress, he said, but they lack ethical bases and values; religious societies have these. Islamic society rejects the imposition of western values. In Lebanon, for example, there is a rich experience of living in a pluralistic society; it does not need western help to establish it. Dialogue, he concluded, should result in practical progress for both the Muslim and Christian communities.
The second formal session was entitled, “A Critical Reading of the Abrahamic Literature,” and three presentations were offered. The first lecturer was Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, a professor of Islamic studies at Temple University (Philadelphia, USA), and a visiting professor at Balamand University (Lebanon). He spoke of the covenantal relationship of humandkind to God in all three Abrahamic traditions. In Christianity, the Abrahamic covenant becomes the “new covenant” in Jesus Christ. The role of Abraham in Islam is not a covenantal one but rather a role model for faith. He further argued that the nationalistic or Zionist interpretations of the Abrahamic covenant in fact distort the ancient Genesis covenant. The covenant is with “all the descendents of Abraham” including Ishmael, Isaac and Abraham's other children, as well as the descendents of all these children. Modern Zionist interpretations are therefore racist interpretations. They limit God's covenant to only one people and reduce God's mercy to a materialistic land transaction.
Second in this session was Dr. Francoise Smythe, professor of Old Testament at the Universities of Geneva and Paris. She reiterated Dr. Ayoub's remark that Abraham's legacy was a lesson to live in faithfulness. A person can only give one's life once, as Abraham surely was aware when he offered his son for sacrifice. In interpreting the Abrahamic texts, she identified four functions: Abraham demonstrated a perfect model of faith, twice God promised Abraham descendants and land, affiliation to Abraham is through the “tribes” (communities), and intercession has great power.
Finally, Dr. Albert de Pury, professor of Old Testament and the History of Ancient Palestine at the University of Geneva offered thoughts on “What Kind of Ancestor is Abraham?” Through a careful analysis of texts, he concluded that Abraham was ecumenical, inter-tribal, and inter-communal. He asserted that Abraham, “ from the beginning, was a figure of reconciliation, a figure of a plural people of God, often divided but always invited to reconciliation without the abandonment of the particular legacy each one has received.”
The next sessions were entitled “The Concept of Abraham from an Islamic Perspective” and “The Concept of Abraham from a Christian Perspective.” From an Islamic perspective, Mr. Muhammad al-Khatib, former Syrian Minister of Religious Endowments, spoke on the ethical perfection of the prophets, the most prominent of whom was Abraham. The depiction of Abraham in the Qur'an, an historical and religious document, is as a man of peace and reconciliation. As we discuss Abrahamic literature, he said, we are called to prove the truth of his message: living our monotheistic faith and demonstrating that people can harmoniously live together in God's covenant.
Also from an Islamic perscpective, Shaykh Dr. Muhammad Sa'id Ramadan al-Bouti, chair of the department of Religion and Creeds at the University of Damascus, spoke of the Qur'‰n as God's message to the people, the final word of God, the seal of revelation. In it, the story of Abraham demonstrates that he received a non-discriminatory, moderate, and inclusive religion. With respect to the promise of land, Dr. al-Bouti stated that it belongs to God and to all the descendents of Abraham. We must refute the Zionists' claim that the Jews are the sole inheritors of the land.
From a Christian perspective, Metropolitan George Khodr, Greek Orthodox Bishop of Mt. Lebanon, stated that Christ is the promised land of Abraham. Abraham attained a degree of divinity when he saw God. God's reconciliation with Abraham cannot be separated from our reconciliation to God through Christ. Abraham forsook everything, even himself; similarly, the faithful person needs nothing, not even self. Abraham, like God, moves through people's hearts. On the issue of the “New Jerusalem,” Khodr clarified that Christianity has no “Holy Land” except in Christ. Palestine is a secular issue and, as Christians, we are concerned with issues of justice and the rights of the Palestinian people. The Abrahamic dream would be for Jews and Arabs to live together in one nation.
Fr. Michel Hayek, representing the Maronite Bishopric of Beirut, author on Abrahamic heritage, and professor of theology, also offered a Christian perspective, saying that Abraham represents the promise of salvation. Many questions that are raised about Abraham, such as “Who was the historical Abraham?” “What was his true given name?” “Was Abraham a merchant or a bedouin?” and “Was the sacrifice of Isaac an actual historic event?” are unanswerable. We do not need to answer them scientifically or historically. But in our scientific and intellectual endeavours, faith plays an important role. Abraham's faith was a faith of hope because of the promise God made to give Abraham's offspring the land, even though his wife was barren. We must go beyond our worldly outlook in order for promises to be fulfilled.
As the last lecture on Friday, Dr. Tarek Mitri, executive secretary for interreligious relations at the World Council of Churches, spoke on “Contemporary Ambiguities in the Idea of the Connection to Abraham.” He stated that Jews and Muslims have a demonstrable geneological lineage to Abraham; Christians have a spiritual link. The attempt to enter into “Abrahamic trialogue” (three-way discussion between Jews, Christians, and Muslims), has been rather unsuccessful, even though one might have expected some positive attempts after peace agreements between some Arab states and Israel were signed. Hopes were demonstrated in the late 1970s when President Jimmy Carter presided over the signing of the peace accord between Egypt and Israel. Carter saw himself as a Christian reconciler between two followers of Abraham, President Anwar as-Sadat and Prime Minister Menachim Begin.
On Saturday, the emphasis of the conference shifted to some contemporary issues. The format was an open meeting of the Arab Working Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue. The first session was entitled “Christian Zionism.” Both presenters had done extensive work on the subject. The Rev. Dr. Ekram Lamie, President of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, gave an historical overview of Judaism and Zionism, pointing out that Judaism was the environment into which Christianity was born. He chronicled the events throughout Judaism and Christianity, and concluded with the modern Zionist movement. He concluded that texts are manipulated to fit a particular agenda. He also stressed that there is a distinction to be made between most Christians and Christian Zionists . It is unfortunate that the latter's voice is strong.
Dr. Yousef Al-Hassan, director of Center for Developmental and Strategic Studies in Sharjah, UAE, began by stating the need to expose Zionist movements. He gave a brief survey of history showing the relationship between religious belief and imperial aspirations, and highlighted the role of some Protestant churches. He then discussed the impact of the Israeli lobby and some Zionist-leaning churches on U.S. policy, asserting that the right-wing churches have a greater impact than Jewish Zionists in the U.S.
The second session was a single presentation by an American writer, Ms. Grace Halsell entitled, “What U.S. Christians Don't Know about Israel.” In this session, Ms. Halsell described her personal journey from a childhood in Texas and her understanding of Israel, and the learning process that has made her an outspoken critic of Zionism and its special relationship to conservative American Christians. She described herself as “typical of many American Christians. They see themselves as well-meaning, fair-minded Christians who feel bonded to Israel—and Zionism—often from atavistic feelings, in some cases dating from childhood.” As she grew, she desired to travel and understand the world. Her travels included some time in Palestine/Israel, where she began to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict in a completely new light. Her presentation reflected a great deal of research into the problem of American support for Israel. It also reflected a depth of understanding of the conflict from a Christian point of view. She concluded by stating, “We have survived through many hardships because we as children of the One God have faith: ultimately justice will prevail ... . To bear witness, one must criticize America for its double standards, for permitting a Zionist stranglehold of our media, of our churches. And we must rebuke U.S. ministers for all too often making a cult of the land of Israel, rather than speaking up for suffering people.”
Ms. Halsell gave a second lecture on Sunday evening that was open to the public. It was a synopsis of her book, Prophecy and Politics , which Dr. Muhammad Sammak had translated into Arabic more than 15 years ago. In this talk, Ms. Halsell discussed the very close relationship that exists between the state of Israel and conservative American Christians, who tend to interpret the Bible in an overly-literal way, seeking to put the battleground for Armageddon firmly on Israeli soil, believing that the destruction of the earth by nuclear weapons is foretold, and following a dispensationalist progression toward the end of the world and salvation. Conservative support for Israel involves significant amounts of money which she describes as “a marriage of convenience between militant Christians and militant Jewish Zionists. Each group uses the other [and] gains from the other.”
The last session of the conference was an informative panel discussion of the “Freedom from Religious Persecution Bill” that was overwhelmingly passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May. The panelists were Ms. Carole Dagher, a Lebanese journalist, who offered a chronology of the campaign in the U.S. to combat religious persecution; Mr. Samir Morcos, MECC Associate General Secretary, who spoke about the campaign from an Egyptian perspective; Dr. Sa'ud al-Mawla, and Dr. Tarek Mitri.
At the closing session Rev. Jarjour read a draft closing statement, proposing that the conference adopt it. The participants did so unanimously.
The conference was a significant event. In a collegial spirit, Christians and Muslims dedicated to better relations between faith communities came together to discuss matters of importance for the roots of both faiths, for contemporary life and for international relations. The discussion of Abraham and his “descendants'” relationship to God was not an abstract or academic exercise in Christian theology or Islamic ‘ilm-ul-kalam . Contemporary issues of politics could not be avoided in this very contextual choice of topics, and participants wrestled hard with the context of the modern state of Israel and the relationship of the Jews to Abraham. But it was clear that Abraham, the man of faith and faithfulness, was held up as a model for all who follow in his footsteps. The positive spirit of exchange far outweighed any disagreements on the political interpretation of sacred texts.
First appeared in MECC NewsReport , Autumn 1998